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The cast of Gravity Always Wins
(Photo © M. Sharkey)
Brit-rock fans will immediately recognize the inspiration for pop playwright Marc Spitz's latest domestic comedy, Gravity Always Wins. Radiohead's melancholy "Fake Plastic Trees" paints a moving portrait of mundane suburban life:
Her green plastic watering can
For her fake chinese rubber plant
In fake plastic earth.
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself.

It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out

She lives with a broken man,
A cracked polystyrene man,
Who just crumbles and burns.
He used to do surgery for girls in the eighties,
But gravity always wins.

Twentieth century philosophers and artists have noted that modern life tends to feel unreal, and Spitz is no exception. Everything about this farcical family drama, from the Astroturf carpet on stage to the stock characters, seems fabricated. Mort, the head of the impossibly dysfunctional Williams family, would be your typical father-knows-best patriarch if not for his penchant for kinky sex and Michael Jackson-inspired cosmetic surgery. Freak Nasty momma Mary leaves her aspiring King of Pop husband to raise their equally quirky children on his own. Son Clay is hopelessly in love with a self-destructive French girl. His brother Scotty is an agoraphobic closet case who has a vivid fantasy life involving an alpha-blond gay porn star, but he can't quite bring himself to face the real world without a surgical mask and rubber gloves.

This dark comedy à la Christopher Durang aims to unsettle as much as tickle and, by the 10th abortion joke or so, it succeeds in that respect. There's a knee-slapper about cervical reconstruction, as well as talk of "retarded, crooked Jew babies" with AIDS. The moment that the father appears onstage in full Michael Jackson regalia, most audience members will predict a plot twist concerning child molestation. This gruesome humor pulls the play far away from familiar domestic comedy territory into a sort of Levittown dystopia, implying that a world of social commentary lies beneath the trivial pop-culture veneer of the story.

Spitz backs up his conceit with an intelligent, postmodern take on the theme of perception versus reality: Characters refer to "tropical fish" that are actually nothing more than design on a shower curtain and one character plays with a squeaky rubber rat that stands in for an actual rodent. The Michael Jackson bit throws plastic surgery into the mix. Nothing in the play is allowed to exist on its own terms; even Red Cheek apple juice serves as a cheeky commentary on the significance of brand name labels in American culture.

The test for this play is whether it can remain true to its title and stay grounded; many of the actors are up to the task. Zeke Farrow plays a variety of archetypal characters in a way that has the audience laughing in recognition; his take on a sticky-sweet marriage counselor gives Saturday Night Live's Stuart Smalley a run for his money, and his morally conflicted cosmetic surgeon is a riot. Philip Littell and Valerie Clift strike a nice balance between family-oriented parents and kinky superfreaks. Jonathan Lisecki, who also directs, plays the agoraphobe with palpable fear in his eyes. As his ecstasy-slinging blond bombshell, Andersen Gabrych is well cast. (The best fake title of the night: Terms of Endowment.)

Philip Littell and Valerie Clift in Gravity Always Wins
(Photo © M. Sharkey)
Some of the other performers fail to strike a balance between cartoonish characterization and real human behavior. Brian Reilly's Clay, for example, seems only mildly annoyed by his wife's decision to abort their child; although his meekness is part of the character's humor, the audience should be aware that Clay is suppressing his resentment. Alexandra Oliver uses a fake mole over her right lip and a throaty accent to create the most exaggeratedly French woman ever to exist on the stage, but the novelty of this brash, offensive mademoiselle soon wears thin.

Charlie Chaplin once described tragedy as life in close-up and comedy as life in long shot. Much of the humor in Spitz's farce comes from the pain of its characters. For instance, after the father bleaches his skin, he reveals how his wife made him feel dirty about his kinkiness. The audience discovers that his reliance on cosmetic surgery is a form of regression rather than celebrity worship; he wants to return to childhood, and emulating Michael Jackson is a form of escapism for him. This may sound like a ridiculous pop-psych premise, but it makes for a touching scene.

Gravity Always Wins is funniest and most substantial when Spitz remembers the humanity of its characters. That sense is lacking in the first part of the play, on the part of both the author and the performers, yet the show is ultimately hilarious and thought-provoking. Gravity Always Wins offers a showcase for Spitz's talent before his ...Worry, Baby is revived Off-Broadway this fall. The playwright would do well to mind one of his own lessons: Never fight gravity.

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